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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Is Genetic Engineering The Way To Restore The American Chestnut Tree?

Some 3 billion American chestnut trees succumbed to a fungal blight in the early 1900s. Now an organization dedicated to restoring the tree is seeking approval to release a genetically engineered chestnut tree into the wild.
Public Domain via Pixabay
Some 3 billion American chestnut trees succumbed to a fungal blight in the early 1900s. Now an organization dedicated to restoring the tree is seeking approval to release a genetically engineered chestnut tree into the wild.

The once-ubiquitous American chestnut tree is now functionally extinct, nearly erased from the landscape by a blight that killed roughly 3 billion trees over 50 years. Now a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring the tree is seeking federal approval to release a genetically engineered blight-resistant chestnut into the wild. But is a genetically engineered tree the right way to restore a virtually extinct species?

The blight, an Asian fungus that girdles chestnut trees and eventually kills them, came to North America in around the 1900s. Years of federal and local forestry efforts failed to revive the species. The nonprofit American Chestnut Foundation was formed in the 1980s to continue that work and restore the trees to the wild.

The ACF has bred hybrid trees resistant to the blight, but it's also pursuing a genetically-modified tree that combines genes from wheat and cauliflower into a tree resistant to the fungus. Much of that research is being done at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.

Sara Fitzsimmons, ACF director of restoration and a researcher at Penn State University, joins Vermont Edition to explain chestnut restoration efforts and how the foundation is working toward federal approval to plant its genetically modified chestnut trees in the wild to restore the species.

Fitzsimmons will also discuss the March resignation by two members of the Massachusetts/Rhode Island ACF in protest to the foundation's plans to plant geneticially modified trees and opposition to agrochemical and biotech companies Monsanto and ArborGen being involved in the project.

Broadcast live on Wednesday, April 3, 2019 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Originally from Delaware, Matt moved to Alaska in 2010 for his first job in radio. He spent five years working as a radio and television reporter, radio producer, talk show host, and news director. His reporting received awards from the Alaska Press Club and the Alaska Broadcasters Association. Relocating to southwest Florida, he was a producer for television news and NPR member station WGCU for their daily radio show, Gulf Coast Live. He joined Vermont Public in October 2017 as producer of Vermont Edition.
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